The Situationist City | Critical Review

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23/09/19 Literature Reference this

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Sadler, S. (1999). The Situationist City. Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: The MIT Press.

Review by Ivette Chehade

A man’s life is a series of ever changing situations. Our birth itself is a situation for us and for those who surround us. Imagine one living without any situation occurring in every minute of one’s life. Man is shaped, changed, improved and destroyed by the sum of situations that happen in every second of every minute of his life. Cities are like us born from situations. After their birth they become a situation and later on they form new ones. Like those who occupy them, cities are a combination of happenings, which is why we find lots of mystery in trying to understand how cities are the way they are. Once we acknowledge the existence of such a concept and apply it amongst many others then and only then can we understand how cities are shaped and what makes them the way they are. The first part of this essay will consist of a critical review of Sadler’s book, The Situationist City. The second part consists of a discussion of the text in relation to the Studio A project.

Formed in 1957 at Cosio d’Arroscia in Italy by a merging of revolutionary groups, The Situationist International (SI) addressed themselves as the last avant-garde movement, a movement of considerable influence introducing a program of actions through artistic measures. The Situationist International were founded principally by members from two key groups: the Lettrist International (1952-57), a Paris established group of poets led by Guy Debord andthe International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (1954-57), dominated by painters Asger Jorn and Giuseppe Gallizio. The SI held a strong opinion and criticism against capitalism and bourgeois society, or “the society of spectacle” as Debord gloriously named it, their revolt was considered as the keystone of postmodernism. Their members had the common opinion that mass post war production and capitalism were a threat to spontaneity and playfulness. Thus, they were delighted by places or building untouched by modernization and capitalism. One of their most critical approach was detournement, drift, a method used to reverse the messages of increasing consumerism culture. Sadler’s work in The Situationist City concentrates on the examination of the urban and architectural theories and practices of the SI. It focuses on the early stages of Situationism in the 1950s within the circumstances of the rapid postwar modernization of France.   The book’s meticulously divided sections examine the Situationists’ urban program.

The first part consists of a critique of the environment as it existed and a denouncement of modernism as a constraint to rationality and regulation. Sadler accurately explains that his intention, as mentioned in the introduction, is to draw out “the common ground among the avant-garde groups that contributed to Situationism, rather than their considerable differences” (Sadler, 1999). Since the SI denounced the architecture field in their writings, earlier studies abstained from linking the SI to cotemporary architectural movements. However, according to Sadler, the SI owed to the contemporary architects much more than they were ready to say. The SI took their stand from other intellectual movements. Sadler compares the SI to team 10 of CIAM (The Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) constituted of young architects whose founding members were Alison and Peter Smithson (who were also IG members), Aldo van Eyck, and Jacob Bakema. He compares them to Henri Lefebvre and the Marxists, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, and sociologist Paul Henri Chombart de Lauwe as well. Thereby, through the intellectual left community formed after the war in France Sadler provides an outstanding journey of the socio-political conditions that the left wing found so repulsive.

Part two of the book examines more closely the Situationist direction for a new urbanism. They were nostalgic for a time where artists, architects and designers had pursued spontaneous open ended experiments. They want to make of daily life a creative, continuously playful, surprising, a delirious ecstatic experience. Sadler describes Guy Debord and his colleagues drifts (derives) through different areas of Paris. Wealthy and touristic sectors such as the Champs Elysees were not considered by the situationists. Other areas like Les Halles, the Square des Missions Etrangeres, and La Place de la Bataille de Stalingra were the places where the SI wandered around. In these places they discovered many situations and explored a unique atmosphere, which triggered in the SI the need to save these different places from the modernist axe. For that, they filmed and photographed a memory. It was then when Guy Debord, Asger Jorn and Constant debated certain theories like, psychogéographie, détournement, dérive, situations, and urbanisme unitaire. Those were the titles of their revolutionary screamswhich offereda vison for the people to create their own utopia. A vision where they can “cut up” original parts of a city and assemble them together as a new perspective. The book shares illustrations of collages, paintings, photography, films of this utopia, and “maps of feelings”. The Situationist City was a place of passion, a place full of situations where people would drift infinitely.

In the third part, Sadler concentrates on Constant Nieuwenhuy’s New Babylon, an urban design holding the SI principles. Sadler’s study is one of the first studies analyzing the relationship between the Situationist International and architectural movements with the help of Constant’s work. He was an artist, an artist surrounded by architects such as Aldo van Eyck and was well aware of their work. When he started constructing models of his New Babylon one could not but notice the resemblance with Yona Friedman’s spatial urbanism. His models were a vision of playfulness and flexible urban form. Spaces could be constantly moved and removed within a fixed megastructure. Leisure, fun and continuous drift would be the principal Babylonians’ activity. The temporary spaces would provide the inhabitants with new forms and experiments. Their social life would be based upon encounter and play. Despite Debord’s acceptance to Constant’s grand construction, Constant is expelled from the Situationist International in 1961 because of his intention to construct a church with a group of befriended architects. In opposition to Sadler’s say that the SI deserted its “imagining of utopia”, the situationists never moved from their utopian ideas and Debord was still interested in Constant’s utopian model. By capturing Constant as a key point between architecture and the Situationist International, the author explores some incoherence in Constant’s unitary urbanism. The author considers that the Situationist International were not able to take a decision regarding how to build situations or how to change the city itself. He denounce how they retreated from their utopian’s ambition and left situationism as an analytical metaphor, a continuous life experience based on detournement.


Sadler does a great work analyzing the connection between the intellectual avant-garde, the city and the postwar French modernization in the 1950s. In spite of their partiality and disunion the situationists had a great influence on people and allowed them to see modernism was seen as inhuman. Divided sectors were replaced by mixed use areas and leisure use was introduce to several city centers. However, situationists could not turn their revolutionary theories (Psychogéographie, détournement, dérive, situations, urbanisme unitaire) into a coherent program. Sadler concentrates on what the Situationist International aim to achieve rather than their accomplishments making us assume that they were all only theories.

Many thoughts come to mind after reading The Situationist City and trying to find links to the Studio A project we did on the Northern Quarter of Manchester. Most of these thoughts prove a certain truth to the concept of the situationists, while others become spontaneous thought patterns that are generated due to the infinite wandering that the book provides along with the study of the northern quarter itself.

The Situationist City is a book with key elements that help us analyze and understand areas such as the northern quarter. These key elements that need be understood and used in the study of cities are the same ones mentioned in part one of this essay. Psychogeography and drifting and analysing the situations within that area. Phsychogeography “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities… just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape” (Hart,2004). When visiting the northern quarter for the first time, one will feel the sensation depicted in the words that Joseph Hart used to explain what phychogeography means. The streets and buildings of the northern quarter make a visitor feel a true sense of playfulness and unlimited ways of drifting within those spaces. The buildings, one next to the other are but a mere visual representation of the character it holds within. It is definitely a city of situations. An urban playground for those willing to drift away in its streets and explore its buildings. “Its network of red-brick garment warehouses, gently faded facades and higgedly-piggedly hidden gems has become one of Manchester’s greatest assets” (Williams, 2018). Many buildings and landmarks situated between Piccadilly and the Ancoats contribute to the charm and distinct character of the area. Drifting through the Northern Quarter’s streets which are full of independent retails, shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants can drive an individual from a surprise to another. Afflecks Palace located on the corner of Tib Street and Church Street is a great example of buildings hiding spaces from another dimension. It is an emporium of eclecticism filled with unique independent traders, designers and artists. It is a delirious place with an unexpected atmosphere hidden in a heritage building that is blending with the surrounding. The Craft and Design center and the Mackie Mayor Food hall which were respectively a Victorian fish market building and a Victorian meat market reserve some surprises as well. When it comes to analyzing and discovering the situations within that space, one can divide that exploration into many parts such as socio-economic, political and architectural. The most important one being the social aspect of that place, the community. The community is formed of many people with different backgrounds mostly being experimentalists in different fields, whether its music, art, architecture or any sort of business venture they are willing to take. What brings those people to the northern quarter is the low rent and most importantly the endless personal opportunities for exploring and discovering inside the buildings and streets of that part of the city. In that small narration of how the community in the northern quarter is composed one can start to observe the situations that brought these people to that place. Situations in the northern quarter are created by a community that was situationally formed due to the psychogeography of that space, thus those situations will seem endless and the urban scape will always have something to reveal.

Expressive streets are those of the northern quarter. Other than their architecture the community has used the walls to express certain political and social views or as way to embellish these streets. Wandering around these streets will lead to an understanding of what the community actually needs. It allows you to understand what this city is suffering from and how to solve it. Just by studying the art one can understand how to intervene in a city. When working on such a place one must always be aware of the authenticity and spontaneity of what exists. Whether it’s the streets, architecture or even the community one should recognize that any wrong alteration can be a danger to the character of the city.

The northern quarter right now is suffering from the wrong interventions done by the developers. The demolishing of buildings is the wrong way to intervene. With every building demolished and replaced by a new one a part of the northern quarter’s character is destroyed. Streets with a new building will never allow the same feeling to be felt again. The charm of the Victorian buildings and other old buildings that have for ages existed in the northern quarter along with the community are the main reason why it is that interesting. Without these elements it will become like any other city and the community that has been there and composed to fit there will perish and no longer have a place to drift and experiment.

An important part of the Studio A project was to allocate certain hot spots for interventions. The aim of these interventions was to satisfy the communities’ needs and at the same time maintain the character and spirit of the northern quarter. That was the challenge of this project. After acknowledging the fact that the key elements of the Situationists theories do exist in the boundaries of the northern quarter, the concept of each intervention becomes in itself a main source of endless drifting within the city. These interventions were spread out through the northern quarter and located in various streets of the area. However, this spread proved to be extremely beneficial to the northern quarter. Rather than dividing the city to different parts it actually brought it all together into one major situation that can later be split into various happenings that are felt as a person walks through the streets of the city. Interventions are a way of creating situations. How we create these situations depend on what the community needs and how we can translate these needs into architectural and urban happenings.

Roof garden intervention on Hilton Street is a great example of how a bigger situation could be split into several small ones. The creation of a roof garden with accessible functions allows the individuals wandering and drifting on Hilton Street to explore the buildings even further. Roof gardens allow a certain dialogue to happen between the street and the building, thus creating a sense of drifting that starts as the person is walking the streets of the northern quarter but ends up on a multifunctional roof of a building. What that roof has to offer in terms of green space or a new sense of perception of the existing urban scape in its self is a main feeling of exploring situations. Intervening in such a way does not only offer the community a place to meet and share ideas but also allows them to explore their city in a different way, thus drifting through the now existing link between the streets and elevated rood gardens of the buildings.

Another major intervention that served as link between the streets and buildings was the transformation of the car park intro an interior green park on Tib Street. An alteration in a function of a building in such a way can make the buildings part of the wandering experience for those who live there and for those who are visiting. After the building’s interior functions become open to the public the streets are no longer limited to the boundaries of building contours. The streets and the buildings become one, thus individuals roaming the city will find endless charms and surprises amongst the endless links created by the openness of the spaces. In that situation the intervention that took place provided the people with a public space to meet, but most importantly it created a sense of unity between the buildings and the streets. Thus a bigger situation is created in order to allow smaller ones to happen. A certain truth of situationist theories is found in such an intervention. It proves that intervening can be a way to enhance the psychogeography of an area. It could make the authentic character and influence of the city on its individuals much more visible to the eye.

Stevenson Square was changed from a road used only by cars to become the centre of attention of the northern quarter. The intervention that was applied to Stevenson Square was somehow us trying to reimagine what the northern quarter would be like if the markets were still part of the streets. How would those things impact ones drift when these markets are in place? Stevenson Square was the answer to that question. It created a sense of openness towards the other streets, buildings and sidewalks. The street felt again as if they belonged to the people and not the heavy traffic that circulates the area throughout the day. An intervention such as this one is indeed great. Other than enhancing the existing detournement in the northern quarter, the people were given the opportunity to revisit the past and experience the openness of street markets and street exhibitions again. This sense of belongingness to the street was created by changing the ways of traffic in order to have Stevenson square completely pedestrianized.

 Many are the urban theories that try to explain how cities are composed or perhaps try to explain how a city functions. However, the closer a theory is to the community or to the general character of a city the easier it is to understand that city. The Situationists were eventually theorists who managed to explain how we should analyze cities and from which scopes should one look at cities. In the journey of studying the northern quarter one cannot but mention some truth behind what the theories of the Situationists hold, however theories like this might not be applicable everywhere. Therefore in some places Situationists theories might succeed and other places they simply could fail. But this does not mean that the theory itself has been false, it means that the area being studied needs another approach to be studied from. When we accept that, we might be able to reach certain elements that are common between two or more different theories by discovering that one of them is a reliable theory through which a certain city can be studied through. When looking at the Northern Quarter of Manchester through the eyes of a Situationist after all these interventions were made, one will realize that the combination of the existing urban scape needed these interventions in order to be able to speak. It needed the openness of certain spaces and the pedestrianizing of certain squares and streets. It needed the reusing of certain buildings with a twist to their functions. All these interventions were just a way to enhance the feeling or experimenting and exploring that already existed in the streets of the norther quarter, and to allow its people to keep on drifting endlessly and limitlessly.

References

  • Hart, J. (2004). A New Way of Walking. Retrieved from https://www.utne.com/community/a-new-way-of-walking
  • Sadler, S. (1999). The Situationist City. Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: The MIT Press.
  • Williams, J. (2018). Could the Northern Quarter be losing its soul? [Online] Manchester Evening Press. Available at: https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/could-northern-quarter-losing-soul-14154254

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